Catherine Parr- sixth wife of King Henry VIII
Henry- the ideal marriage partner?
Following the execution of his fifth wife, Katherine Howard, King Henry was once again looking for a wife. In most European countries he was not considered a suitable husband having divorced two of his previous wives and beheaded two others.
Widowed and married to the King
In the Spring of 1543 the Kings thoughts turned to love at home. Catherine Latimer nee Parr was a widow and she could calmly be presented as a suitor for the King as being a widow she would not be subject to the Kings test of purity and maidenhood which he ordered a bride should now be prepared to pass. He did not want the spectre of Katherine Howard to haunt his relationship. Catherine was a woman of about 31 years with a remote royal line via her grandmother Elizabeth Fitzhugh to John of Gaunt, son of Edward iii. Catherine had been married twice. The first marriage was in 1529 when she married a man of around her own age, Edward Borough who died in 1532. Catherine received a small annuity from her late husband’s family and so made a good marriage to John Neville, Lord Latimer of Yorkshire in 1533, the bride aged 21years and the groom 40 years old with children. Catherine did not have an easy time, her husband was taken as hostage and then became the rebel Ashe’s mouthpiece whilst Catherine and the children were held under house arrest whilst Lord Latimer went to London to plead for forgiveness to the King. Although Latimer was not charged owing to a lack of evidence he returned North a broken man and never recovered his health. Catherine returned to London and the court, attracting the attention of the aged King. Indeed the first presents that Catherine received were some two weeks before the death of her husband, Lord Latimer.
On 12th July 1543 Henry and Catherine were married in the presence of the court including the King’s two daughters who had recently regained their positions in succession after Prince Edward. Catherine was by all accounts a woman who enjoyed good company, liked to dance and encouraged music in the court. Like her predecessors she ordered silks from Antwerp and re used the gowns that her predecessors had worn.
Catherine the Stepmother
Catherine took on the roll of step mother to the King’s three children, the eldest Mary, aged 27 years and maintained good relationships with them all, on occasions ensuring that they were all together rather than in their separate households. Lady Mary became part of the Queen’s household where she was loved and cared for in a period when she suffered from a number of illnesses. Catherine was empowered in July 1544 to act as regent in the King’s absence. This is particularly important as only his first wife Catherine of Aragon received this power; even his beloved Jane Seymour was not given this power.
Catherine the Regent
In 1544 the King led his army into France, not as the glorious young King but as a fat, elderly man who struggled to sit upon his horse. The sixth Queen was more of a nurse than a lover, treating the ulcers on her husband’s legs and encouraging him to wear glasses to enable him to read more easily. Whilst Henry was in France and Catherine was Regent troubled brewed again in Scotland and the Queen was happy to write to the King to tell him of the success against the Scots.
A religious conviction
Catherine holds the distinction of being one of only eight women who had books published during the reigns of Henry VII and his son, Henry VIII. Although she favoured a more radical Protestantism her book “Prayers and Meditations”, was extremely popular causing 19 re prints during the sixteenth century. It is a conciliatory book with such prayers as “teach me Lord to fulfil thy will to live meekly and worthily before thee”. A sentiment that many sixteenth century women and many women following after, would be inclined to agree with. Her second book, “Complaints of a sinner”, was published after the death of the King and even then in the name of Catherine’s brother, William as it contained more severe protestant religious theory.
The summer of 1545 saw the revenge of France for the loss of Boulogne the previous year. French forces invaded the Isle of Wight and whilst the King and Catherine were watching on the shore at Portsmouth the great ship the Mary Rose was sunk because she had let in too much sea water when opening her gun ports to fire against the French. The cries of the 700 trapped sailors, who died that day, could be heard by the King and Catherine on the mainland. As well as being a comfortable, supportive and devoted wife Catherine became a loving step mother of Prince Edward . The Queen and the Prince were in almost daily contact and in 1546 his sister Elizabeth was brought to court to be in her step mother’s gentle care.
Catherine endangers her life
Despite her charm and devotedness to the King, Catherine position was unstable as 1546 dawned. There were rumours, Catherine was an ardent supporter of Protestantism and the new Lord Chancellor Baron Wriothesley was also ardent in his pursuit of these people or heretics as they were labelled. It was not known the extent of Queen Catherine’s faith and a number of heretics were arrested in order to prove a link to those at court and especially the Queen. It is at this point that Catherine made what could have proved to be a fatal mistake. The King’s leg ulcers were becoming extremely painful and when in pain the King was subject to terrifying bouts of ill temper. It was on a hot summer day like this that Catherine echoing the character of Anne Boleyn started to lecture the King, quite violently and opposed his opinion entirely. It seemed that Catherine was now set for denouncement, the Privvy council meeting on 4th July 1546 ordered that her estate books be brought to court, and this was the first stage in valuing the estate that would be forfeited on her death.
The Queen acts to protect her own life
However Catherine did have some friends and a copy of the charges that would be laid against her was dropped just outside the Queen’s chambers. Catherine, realising the danger she was in, rushed to the King, knowing that previously he had walked away from his wives without notice. The King feeling slightly better that day decided to argue the religious doctrines with his wife. Catherine played her part well. Instead of an argumentative opposing wife he received a supplicant wife who was quoted as saying “men ought to instruct their wives, who would do all their learning from them”. She further alluded to the Kings theological expertise by explaining that she had reason “to be taught by his Majesty, who was a prince of such learning and wisdom”. The King had not quite forgiven her previous outburst but did so when Catherine explained that she had spoken so outrageously to distract the King’s mind from his pain, which the King realised had been quite effective, even though probably unintentional on Catherine’s part! The next day the Lord Chancellor arrived to arrest the Queen and was told very definitely by the King to go away- Catherine received a present of some very fine jewels. Was Catherine really in danger? Or was it simply a game played by the King, perhaps he was teaching her a lesson, but with his history it would be an unwise person who would chance the outcome.
The King's health deteriorates
Shortly after the attempt to depose Queen Catherine the Kings condition worsened. Although able to take some outdoor exercise, he was in need of the kind and gentle nursing that Catherine would provide. In December the King feel gravely ill, that he was dying was known but how long it would be until he died was the subject of many discreet rumblings at court. The Queen and the Kings two daughters left court on Christmas Eve to celebrate Christmas at Greenwich Palace, although they returned on 10th January 1547 they were denied access to the King who was very ill, falling into a coma and dying on 28th January 1547 aged 55 years old. Catherine watched as her third husband’s body was lowered into the grave already occupied by his beloved Jane Seymour; perhaps she was already turning her thoughts to who would be her fourth husband.
Death and marriage to Lord Seymour
Catherine was granted the status of the first lady in land, ranked above even her step daughters, and would retain it until her nine-year old stepson was old enough to be married. Henry left Catherine a substantial amount of cash, goods and apparel and properties at Hanworth and Chelsea. Her role was however purely symbolic as she was not included in the Regency council which ruled in King Edward’s minority. Catherine married Lord Thomas Seymour, the man she had wanted to marry before the King paid suit to her. The marriage date is not known but it is believed to have happened in May, in secret, less than four months after the death of her husband. The couple could not get married straight away- the formality of waiting to see if the Queen was carrying the King’s child had to be observed; although most presumed that after three marriages and no children, that the Queen dowager was in fact infertile. The modern reader would no doubt be quite scandalised that a marriage could take place so soon after the death of her husband.
Birth and Death
Catherine was pregnant, her first pregnancy after three husbands and at the age of 35 years. Catherine and her husband provided a home for Lady Elizabeth who was growing into a fine young girl. Lord Seymour began to have unsuitable relations with the girl, such as entering her room without knocking in order to catch her in a state of undress- to Catherine, heavily pregnant his behaviour was causing concern so she sent the young princess away to provide harmony at home. The Queen decided to give birth at Sudeley Castle and made arrangements for elaborate furnishings welcome her child into the world. Catherine went into labour on 30th August 1548 and reasonably soon after a baby girl, named after Princess Mary was born. Catherine succumbed to a raving fever and then after a period of calm, death came quite quickly, dying when her longed for baby was just a week old. Baby Mary lived only two years after her mother having been left in the care of others following the attainder and execution of her father in 1549. A sad ending to the life of Catherine Parr.